3D Printing for Game Prototypes
When I got started in game design I hunted all over the internet forums to find the best deals on game design components. I searched for meeples, cubes, blank cards, and more. And I ended up paying a bunch of money for those things. I wished I could afford a MakerBot or other 3D printer but I wasn’t willing to spend $1,500+ at the time.
Times have changed and huge advancements in 3D printing technology has allowed the prices to drop. This has opened the door for many designers to be able to purchase their own 3D printer for game design purposes.
Which 3D Printer?
This is probably the most common question that potential consumers have when it comes to 3D printers. There are so many printers on the market and so many ways to modify those 3D printers.
My recommendation for people getting into the 3D printing world is to start cheap and simple. Some thoughts are here:
- Stay at or below $250.
- Purchase one that is ready to use out of the box.
- Start with simple prints.
My Printer – Monoprice Select Mini
For my birthday last year I was gifted a Monoprice Select Mini 3D printer. It runs around $190. It also works right out of the box. The only adjustment required would be to level the bed. That just means that every part of the printing bed is equally distant from the nozzle when the nozzle is over that part of the bed.
This printer has been really great for me. I am currently using it to print some game design pieces for a vertical system in a game.
This printer is great for small game design components. The print volume is 12cm x 12cm x 12 cm. I have four different filaments so I can currently make components for games up to 4 players. With more filaments I could add more players.
What Filament to Use?
Most 3D printers use PLA, which is a plastic. PLA stands for Polyactic Acid. But don’t let the “acid” part scare you. This is just a common plastic material.
Other printers and some of the 3D Pens use ABS. ABS is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene.
My printer uses the PLA. I purchase PLA on 1kg spools in whichever color I desire. I prefer the 3D Solutech brand but the Hatchbox products are also nice. Be careful when you purchase filament. They often list a +/- value of 0.05 or 0.03. Anything over these values may lead to poor print quality as it means the filament is not consistently thick.
One thing I recommend for getting started is to purchase a filament sample pack. Monoprice sells one but it is currently out of stock. I’m sure you could find an appropriate sample pack at your favorite online retailer.
What about the 3D Models?
I am an engineer so I happen to have access to 3D solid modeling software. But if you’re not an engineer and don’t have access, do not fear! There are numerous 3D modeling tools out there that are free to use. Unfortunately I cannot speak for any of then.
Ultimately, to print in 3D you will need a .STL or .gcode file. You can make your own 3D geometry and save in this format or you can visit some of the following websites with loads of 3D files readily available!
- Thingiverse – Free.
- MyMiniFactory – Free and Paid models available.
- Shapeways – Upload your model and someone will print it and mail it to you.
- YouMagine – Free.
What about Slicing Software?
3D printed models are printed one layer at a time. To be able to tell the 3D printer what to do you will need to utilize a 3D printing software that can generate a .gcode file from your .STL file. You can pay for software like Simplify3D ($149) or you can use a free one.
The software I prefer, because it is relatively easy to use and understand, is Ultimaker’s Cura software. When you install the software you tell it which printer you have. It then knows how large of a print area you have available and other settings specific to your printer.
Bits for Board Gamers
There is a great thread on BoardGameGeek about 3D printers. They share a lot of the same links that I’ve compiled on this page. On the thread you can see prints available for a lot of your favorite board games.
Now that you’ve got a great framework to get started in 3D printing, what are you waiting for? Please feel free to comment with your experiences in 3D printing for board games.